The African Union has launched its commission of inquiry into human rights violations in Tigray, northern Ethiopia, even as Addis Ababa protested the creation of the first continental effort to investigate the conflict.
A statement from the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa said the team formed under the African Commission on Human and People's Rights will begin preliminary work in Banjul, the Gambia, after which it will travel to the region to speak with locals.
But Ethiopia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs promptly rejected the move, indicating the AU body was engaging in work that is "out of scope" with what Ethiopia had asked for.
Demeke Mekonen, Ethiopia's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs, said his country had invited the Commission to conduct a joint investigation with the local Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, but the continental body delayed coming on board. The local rights team has been conducting investigations already.
"It is, however, regrettable to note that the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights made a unilateral announcement on the establishment of a "Commission of Inquiry" which is completely outside the scope of the invitation by the government and lacks legal basis," the Ethiopian Foreign Minister indicated.
"The unilateral announcement of ACHPR on establishing a 'Commission of Inquiry' undermines the cooperative spirit and the ongoing efforts of the Government of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia to formalise the modalities of the stated investigation."
The Commission of Inquiry was to be the first time the continental body is picking up the task of finding the truth about atrocities in Tigray, where Ethiopian forces have been fighting the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), once a ruling party but now considered by Addis Ababa as a terrorist group.
"The Commission of Inquiry will begin its work in Banjul, Republic of The Gambia. It will conduct investigations on the ground and in neighbouring countries when the conditions are met," statement from the AU said on Wednesday evening.
The Commission will sit for an initial three months, although AU said it could be extended.
"The Commission of Inquiry will adhere to the principles of independence, confidentiality, impartiality and neutrality, ensuring the protection of those with whom it collaborates."
The Commission will run under the provisions of Article 45 of the African Charter on Human and People's Rights which allows it to speak with victims, alleged villains and other witnesses as well as collect documents from relevant authorities.
The Commission of Inquiry was officially formed in May following an uproar over atrocities in Tigray. Although it carries with it immunity granted under the Charter, its success or failure will depend on cooperation of stakeholders, including neighbouring countries like Eritrea and Sudan, who have both been roped into the conflict. Its final report, however, could only be a recommendation to be implemented by member states, including Ethiopia.
This inquiry is formally being labelled as a fact-finding mission to determine whether the events in Tigray constitute "serious and massive violations of human rights" as defined under international law.
Ethiopia sent soldiers to Tigray in what it labelled a domestic law enforcement operation. But this has been riddled with accusations of human rights violations, ostensibly committed by government soldiers and the Eritrean troops fighting alongside them.
Amnesty International and other rights groups have claimed massacres were committed by Eritrean troops and other claims emerged of rape by soldiers. Ethiopia denied the atrocities were sanctioned, but did agree to investigate through the Ethiopia Human Rights Commission in collaboration with the UN Human Rights Council "as part of the much-needed accountability process for the victims" of rape, murder and other torture.
Last week, a leaked report on the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights for Eritrea claimed there was credible information Eritrean troops also dragged Somalia's trainee soldiers into the battlefront. Both countries dismissed the allegation, although Eritrean officials, the Rapporteur claimed, refused to meet him to discuss the findings.
The UN says up to 90 per cent of the six million people in Tigray are facing starvation, and some 400,000 people are already starving, figures the Ethiopian government has dismissed as alarmist.
Mr Demeke told the international community on Tuesday that authorities have been filtering humanitarian access after learning that some people were smuggling weapons to the TPLF.
"It is extremely regrettable to see that some within the international community have embarked on a mission to undermine the unity, territorial integrity and the cohesion of the Ethiopian state, under the guise of humanitarian concern," he said, but denied there had been a policy to starve people as a weapon of war.
"In the first round of humanitarian response, effort was made to reach out to 4.5 million people in the Tigray region through the delivery of food and non-food items. In the second and third rounds, the relief efforts were able to reach out to 5.2 million people," Demeke said.
Last week, a joint EU and US statement called for ceasefire and access for aid workers, and demanded that an independent inquiry be launched to investigate those who committed atrocities.
"We have continuously called for an end to the violence and for unfettered humanitarian access to all parts of Tigray, but we are witnessing increasing restrictions," they said in a joint statement.
"Using starvation of civilians as a weapon of war is putting at risk the lives of millions. In addition, we are seeing wide-scale human suffering that is entirely preventable. Systematic violence is being inflicted upon civilians, including widespread sexual violence, and extra-judicial and ethnically-motivated killings."